Mystical Zen by Ming Zhen Shakya

On Zenmar’s Presentation of
The Sutta on Antecedentness by Breath

by Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(Majjhima Nikaya 3.82 Translated by Ven. Shakya Aryanatta. From
The Authorized Dark Zen Meditation Manual of Buddhism.)

The question has long taunted Zen Buddhist scholars, Zenmar among them: when the Buddha meditated, which form of meditation did he use?

Zen’s various schools disagree about the correct method to follow. Some schools essentially limit their practices to thought suppression and passive breath observation, while others insist on a more comprehensive program of controlled breathing and meditations on objects, qualities and scriptures. Since these differing methods are often the cause of conflict, knowledge of the Buddha’s meditation practice would be of more than academic interest. It might serve to bridge the growing rift between our schools.

In the absence of documentation there has been no definitive way to settle the issue. Such scripture as exists – at least in its old accepted translation, fails to inspire any reasonable confidence that the lines refer to the Buddha’s own practice. There are, to be sure, directions given here and there for performing a specific kind of meditation; and there are discussions about different methods of meditation. But no single program has gained liturgical notice.

Whether in discovery of new or revision of old, in the matter of scripture there remains always the not insignificant problem of translation. In order to access the original meaning of the lines it is necessary to excavate them from beneath a few millennia of distorting linguistic strata.

A sutra written a few thousand years ago would surely contain fossilized words, skeletal remains of their former lives, unfamiliar to us now except in their mutant varieties. Experts could flesh them out with all the rigor of scholarly exegesis, yet we would be unsure about the true nature of the genus until the work passed that final, critical, individual meditator’s test: did the information conform to what we know experientially to be true of spiritual deliverance?

Zen is a mystical path and as such is realized only in the actual experience of exalted states of consciousness, states that are apprehended with little external evidence of their attainment. Zen practitioners do not wear their achievements like chevrons on a sleeve. We may squabble about dogma, tenet, and style; but in our hearts we find consensus when the subject is the Buddha, himself. Intuitively we know that the Buddha’s practice must be inclusive and, as such, supreme. It cannot omit or dismiss the practice of anyone who has attained enlightenment in service to his holy name.

Zenmar calls attention to a new translation of a section of an ancient text in the Majjhima Nikaya – presumably the Anapanasati Sutta – which was prepared by the Venerable Shakya Aryanatta, a Pali scholar and associate of his.

In his publication of The Sutta On Antecedentness By Breath,. Z contends that ‘something has been missing in Buddhist meditation… the Buddha’s original idea of meditation whereby the adept accesses the immortal spirit…” By specifying “adept” he has set the bar rather high; and if, in fact, the new translation meets this standard, we will have criteria by which to judge our own ‘personal bests.’

There is, in popular access, but one other translation with which Zenmar’s offering can be compared; and a look at it indicates why a new translation is welcome.

The old translation is one line after another of that insipid, repetitious, and cryptic instruction that at first glance appears to be profound but upon closer inspection proves to be less than shallow. In an extremely brief lesson, the devotee is told to train himself in fourteen pairs of breathings, inhalation and exhalation constituting a pair. These fourteen disciplines require that he breathe in and out (1) “sensitive to the entire body”; (2) “calming the bodily processes”; (3) “sensitive to rapture”; (4) “sensitive to pleasure”; (5) “sensitive to mental processes”; (6) “calming mental processes”; (7) “sensitive to the mind”; (8) “satisfying the mind”; (9) “steadying the mind”; (10) “releasing the mind”; (11) “focusing on inconstancy”; (12) “focusing on dispassion”; (13) “focusing on cessation”; (14) “focusing on relinquishment.” No further explanation is given.

What does this scripture mean? What it suggests is that someone said, “The Buddha advocated fourteen meditation stages that have something to do with breathing. Find a dozen topics.. something similar to, ‘Breathe in sensitive to the mind and breathe out sensitive to the mind’ or ‘Breathe in sensitive to the entire body and breathe out sensitive to the entire body’ and then fill in the blanks.”

This is gibberish, drivel intended to appear insightful and instructive. It was not written by an adept, and anyone who knows anything at all about meditation must shake his head in wonderment. Meditation is, by definition, a transcendent state. The scripture purports to offer training in “The Mindfulness of In-&-Out Breathing” but the mind is on everything but the in-and-out breathing. That passive, “short breath is short and long breath is long” exercise is dealt with immediately in the opening lines of the sutra. It is acknowledged and then the fourteen breath training instructions are given.

Now we can look at Zenmar’s offering of Aryanatta’s translation. Scholars will no doubt inspect the work; and those of us who are not scholars will do what we have always done: we will subject it to our own testing methods.

Using the analogy of putting together a jig saw puzzle that has been given to us in a box that has no guiding cover picture, we begin by emptying the jumbled contents of the box onto a table.

We do the physical chores of turning all the pieces face-up and moving all the end pieces to the sides.

Gross inspection allows us to make a few suppositions. If some of the pieces are brown and others blue and the fractured images we see suggest a landscape, we expect that the brown pieces are at the bottom and the blue pieces are at the top. If we detect people, they are likely to be at the bottom along with the flowers… just as birds and clouds, excepting as they might appear reflected in water, are likely to be at the top.

Then we begin the work of putting the pieces together.

Zenmar has insisted that this scripture is the Buddha’s own meditation practice. If so, it must conform to a recognizable image. We are followers of the Buddha. His practice cannot be alien to us. Let us emphasize this: if the subject is meditation – and it surely is – it is concerned with the eternal, unchanging, unconditional world of the Spirit. Culture and fashion and fad have nothing to do with it. If it is true now, it was true then. If it was true there, it is true here. Samsara – the material, historical world, has no part in the discussion.

Although the pressures of time and use may have warped the original meaning of the sutra’s words, any translation must be recognizable as variations on the original theme. Again, style may vary and the interpretations may be somewhat skewed, but the original intent must be contained, even as potential, as acorn is to oak, within the translation. This is not an historical text in which the accuracy of names, dates, and events is vital. This is a meditation guide. And the accuracy of translation, as we have noted, is entirely dependent upon what we know experientially to be true.

The Sutta On Antecedentness by Breath as presented by Zenmar contains a few sentences of introduction and some perfunctory instructions to remove ourselves from worldly distractions, to assume an erect posture, and to be vigilant in our aspirations.

Next, with that delicate sense of humor we find in the Diamond Sutra and in the parables and anecdotes, the Buddha lightly acknowledges the practice of passively watching the breath go up and down. Amazingly, a short breath is short, and a long breath is long. Those of us who practice the strict Healing Breath technique smile accordingly – even though we know how difficult “mere” breath watching can be.

The sutra’s fourteen pairs of breath cycles instruct us to fix our mind upon that which comes before “breath.” Immediately we notice that the mind is not to be kept vacant. In fact, the fourteen pairs of cycles make extraordinary demands upon our powers of concentration: we have to go forward to the past, i.e., to enter the contemplative arena before thoughts arise or, to use a Zen expression, “to see our face before we were born.”

In five of the fourteen pairs the term “recollective antecedentness” appears. And in the introductory paragraph, we find the peculiar expression, “to attend to thorough antecedentness in recollective conjoinment.”

Here, an ambiguity occurs: antecedent means occurring at a previous time, or preceding in rank or place or time. It also, however, means one’s ancestors, ancestry, or past life. A human being has antecedents and, usually, descendants. To recollect is to recall or remember and has a latin root of “gather together.” To conjoin is to connect or unite two or more things.

As we begin searching the word-images looking for something recognizable, we find little that is not similarly cryptic or, as in the all too familiar language of Buddhist scripture, awkwardly worded. The Buddha did not speak the sentences that are often put in his mouth. When we read, “I shall breathe in supremely beholding the mind in recollective antecedentness to it,” we know that these are not his words. These can be only clues to his words.

And then, as we lope along, resigning ourselves to a long, tedious and possibly fruitless investigation, we come to the ninth pair and find the stupendous assertion: “I shall breathe in collecting the mind unto the focus upon the hypostasis.” Whoa!

“Hypostasis” is the strange way we refer to the Holy Trinity of Buddha; Future Buddha; and Bodhisattva, which later Christianity would call Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Here, “Buddha” refers not to Siddhartha, but usually to the Buddha Amitabha (Infinite Light) or Amitayus (Infinite Time) which physicists tell us are one in the same.

Now the picture begins to take form. We suddenly have a very strong suspicion that we know what we’re looking at. We read on to the conclusion and it quickly comes together.

Buddhism is such a confusion of definitions and standards that it is seemingly impossible to list the sequence of meditation experiences that are followed at the higher elevations of the path.

We can, however, appreciate the better documented Shaivist and Daoist gradations. In Shaivism, briefly, there is the “Ground Zero” of All Being followed by thirty-six principles or Tattvas, #1 through #36. The first five of these Tattvas are Nirvanic, indicating five descending spiritual states. Tattvas #1 and #2, Shiva and Shakti (which may not be separated) refer to the Rebis Experience; Divine Marriage; or The Union of Opposites – the entrance into the Trinity which the “Ground” and the marital offspring, the Future Buddha, complete.

This is followed by Tattva #3, the experience of Satori and those states in which the ego is not only eclipsed but in which the interior Buddha presence is experienced.

Tattva #4 accounts for Samadhi and its orgasmic, mind-enveloping bliss.

Tattva #5 represents true meditation (as opposed to Quietism or auto-hypnotic states) and all of true meditation’s exuberant instances – achieved by realizing the Platonic Ideal Forms and through music, dancing, chanting, gazing upon yantras, koan study, reciting mantras, and so on. At this point, the Spiritual Life “proper” terminates.

Tattva #6 is Maya, the converting principle by which spirit devolves into the various stages of material world development, culminating in the familiar Space; Air; Fire; Water; and Earth of, respectively, the Vishuddha, Anahatta, Manipura, Svadhisthana, and Muladhara (Tattva #36) chakras.

The principles of creation, or Tattvas, have qualities or “vrittis” associated with them. At the lower levels of chakras, the qualities are negative and defiling (such as being jealous, lazy and cruel); towards the middle they are mixed (such as being hardworking and hypocritical; and at the top (in or near the head) the qualities are positive and pure (such as being humble and patient). It is the task of the devotee to reform his character, to purge himself of the poisons of greed, lust and ignorance, and to attain such egoless merit as would admit him to the sacred precincts of the first five Tattvas. The chakras which represent the states of spiritual deliverance are in the Ajna and Sahasrara systems (Ajna, Nada, Soma, Kalachakra, Guru and Sahasrara); and, above all, the Parama “Ground” of All Being.

As we study the picture emerging from The Sutta On The Antecedentness of Breath, we can assign the first twelve pairs of breath cycles to the first five Spiritual Tattvas of the Shaivist Path. The thirteenth and fourteenth pairs would seem to be the braces of Tattva #0 (the Infinite Ground of All Being) and Tattva #6, the point at which Spirit converts to matter – or matter converts back into Spirit.

Let us look at the famous wall rubbing and a drawing of it from Daoism’s Bei Yun Monastery in Beijing to see if these comparisons extend to Daoist interpretations of the Path and to the clues given in The Sutta On The Antecedentness of Breath:


Rubbing (left) and sketch (right) of the famous wall rubbing
from Daoism’s Bei Yun Monastery in Beijing

The Sutta’s first training breath-pair requires that the meditator consider “the entire body in recollective antecedentness” and, next, that he “behold that which lies before the arising of the body’s formation.” The body, in its spiritual presence, is represented clearly in the wall-rubbing. We see the lower chakras – Muladhara’s earth, the boy and girl at Svadhisthana’s “water wheel,” Manipura’s fire and caldron, and so on up the spine.

Since it is subtle spirit which devolves into gross matter, the antecedent of the physical is the spiritual, illustrated by the spiritual energy centers or chakras.

Meditation on the Platonic Ideal Forms of material objects provides for the spiritual apprehension of the gross material forms.

The ecstasy of Samadhi is suggested in the Sutta’s instructions to train in “beholding exquisite joyousness” and in “beholding exquisite bliss in recollective antecedentness” while Platonic Ideal Form meditations fulfill the instructions to “behold mental formations in recollective antecedentness” and to “behold that which lies before the arising of the mental formations.”

Satori’s ‘face-before-you-were-born’ experience is accomplished in the next requirement to “behold the mind in recollective antecedentness to it” and in “delighting in the supreme mastery of the mind.”

The Bodhisattva Trinitarian experience is specified in “the focus upon the hypostasis” which, indeed, “supremely emancipates the mind.” It is the liberation attendant upon the Union of Opposites.

In the illustration, the male (figure in Heart center) and female (spinning maiden) have lines that travel up to the back of the head where they are joined in a dwelling (more clearly shown in the drawing of the wall rubbing) called, usually, the Bridal Chamber. For several weeks of the meditator’s life, time stands rapturously still. This is the initial “hypostasis” of the Trinitarian state, represented iconographically as the androgynous Bodhisattva or Shiva and Shakti in conjugal union.

Accordingly, we see that most of the activity in the figure is contained in the throat and head. The negative “vrittis” are purged as the meditator accesses the spiritual centers of the head where only positive qualities reside, “emancipated from defileness” – the Sutta’s twelfth pair.

The illustrations in the head of the Daoist wall rubbing – Lao Tzu, Bodhidharma, the Sun and Moon discs, etc., represent the various chakras associated with the purified spiritual states.

The Sutta ends with the instruction to “return unto the Unific which bestows all, which is all that is.” This hardly requires any further comment.

Zenmar puts his own “Dark Zen” spin on these lines; and perhaps the beauty of the lines is precisely that – that in true oracular fashion they lend themselves to such variations on the theme and accommodate the teaching methods employed.

There are many routes we can take to the summit. We are certain only that as each of us reaches a specific level, the altimeter reading will be everywhere identical. 

Humming Bird
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